In 1996, only two years after the band formed, Tonic released its debut, Lemon Parade. It took a while for the album to find its audience, or for the creaky A&M marketing machinery to get up to speed, but by the end of 1997 Parade had gone platinum. It was pushed into the stratosphere by the plaintive vocal melodies and heavy-handed guitar strumming of the ubiquitous single "If You Could Only See," the most-played rock song of that year, according to Billboard magazine.
Tonic found itself lumped in with a large group of faceless white-boy rock bands, led by Third Eye Blind and Matchbox 20, which had surged to the top when it suddenly became cool again to be simultaneously farcical and earnest. One would need to go back to when Survivor and Loverboy ruled the land to find chart-toppers as homogeneous.
Yet Tonic managed somehow not only to out radio-play the lot of them, but also to differentiate itself artistically. Part of what has set the band apart is its live show: few frills and an intense attack. The initial impact live is startling the first time around. Expectations of some quiet, meandering stroll through radioland are dashed almost instantly.
"As a band, we're very strict about our live show," explains vocalist/ guitarist and main songwriter Emerson Hart. "If people are coming to see us, they're paying money; it should be the best show they've seen. And we work every day and every night to make that possible. When people see it, they react like 'Wow!' because it's a really big thing."
That effect should be even more pronounced on Tonic's current tour, which is promoting CD number two, Sugar, released last year. The band produced the record itself, and the result is a stripped-down, more focused version of Lemon Parade. There are fewer production layers, and the songwriting is clearer. Songs make their points directly. Some tunes, thanks to this reductionist approach, are more sparse and less rock than ever imaginable. Fragile moments in time, captured by Hart, rise to the fore now that some of the excess armor has been pulled away.
"I really wanted to make an honest, organic record," Hart says, "not overproduce it, not spend days overdubbing guitars. Write the song, play the song, release the song. That was my intention -- all of our intentions. I don't buy into all the showiness and flashiness that goes along with records. I know it sells. And if we take less sales because of that, I don't really care, because we made the record we wanted to make."
The "honesty" that Hart and the rest of Tonic (guitarist Jeff Russo, bassist Dan Lavery and drummer-for-hire, Lavery's longtime friend Peter Maloney, who's currently touring with Dishwalla) have managed to capture on Sugar is multihued. Many songwriters seem to use "honesty" as a license to do little more than point out exactly how fucked up they think the world has become. Who knows, maybe their bleakness is sincere and natural. Hart, however, doesn't ignore the good things in his life for the sake of some trendy outcast status.
"My life changed in so many ways both emotionally and financially," Hart says, "that there were great times. I needed to write 'Waltz with Me.' I needed to write about dancing with my girl and feeling that love. I needed to write about having two days off and having someone you love fly out and spend it with you like in 'Stronger Than Mine.' You have to embrace the positive if that's what you're going through. If my life turned to total crap in the next two years, the next record would be a dark record."
Not all of Sugar is sweetness and light. Songs such as "Knock Down Walls" and "Drag Me Down" reflect some hard lessons learned along the way. As Hart sings on "Drag Me Down": "Was it hate or was it hurt that led you to be this way / Did you want it all for nothing / Did you think that would be OK / I did everything I could for you / Still you wanna run me through." Then there's "Mean to Me," which Hart explains as primarily an examination of his self-flagellation period, before he began writing for Sugar. The song also rings chillingly true to anyone who has ever been co-dependent.
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This same simple power comes through on "Queen," in which Hart and the band manage to paint a hyper-realistic picture of the groupie phenomenon, balancing enticement with revulsion. "It's part of the rock and roll myth," says Hart. "But those women are out there. They're really real. I've tried to live my life as honestly as possible. And it's hard, dude. You have three unbelievably gorgeous women pushing you to this brink. Then you say to yourself, 'This isn't real, because if I were working at a gas station, you wouldn't be doing this.' "
This sincerity is what sets Tonic apart from the brat pack. The band writes music as adults, for adults and yet somehow manages to appeal to the alternative-rock masses, many of whom are still in their teens or early twenties.
"The songs that I write, or the songs that we write as a band, people in all age groups seem to identify with," says Hart, not so much explaining as thinking out loud. "I remember high school. I'd prefer not to. But somebody identifies with it, or with 'If You Could Only See.' It doesn't matter how old you are; when you fall that deeply in love you're going to feel strongly about it. I don't have the answers. But if I can help inspire people, or help them feel something in this non-feeling musical vacuum that we're living in right now, that's what it's about."
Tonic performs with Third Eye Blind on Saturday, April 15, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. For more information, call (713)629-3700.